The load a skyscraper experiences is largely from the force of the building material itself. In most building designs, the weight of the structure is much larger than the weight of the material that it will support beyond its own weight. In technical terms, the dead load, the load of the structure, is larger than the live load, the weight of things in the structure (people, furniture, vehicles, etc.). As such, the amount of structural material required within the lower levels of a skyscraper will be much larger than the material required within higher levels. This is not always visually apparent. The Empire State Building's setbacks are actually a result of the building code at the time (1916 Zoning Resolution), and were not structurally required. On the other hand, John Hancock Center's shape is uniquely the result of how it supports loads. Vertical supports can come in several types, among which the most common for skyscrapers can be categorized as steel frames, concrete cores, tube within tube design, and shear walls.
The wind loading on a skyscraper is also considerable. In fact, the lateral wind load imposed on super-tall structures is generally the governing factor in the structural design. Wind pressure increases with height, so for very tall buildings, the loads associated with wind are larger than dead or live loads.
Other vertical and horizontal loading factors come from varied, unpredictable sources, such as earthquakes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City was a center for the Beaux-Arts architectural movement, attracting the talents of such great architects as Stanford White and Carrere and Hastings. As better construction and engineering technology became available as the century progressed, New York City and Chicago became the focal point of the competition for the tallest building in the world. Each city's striking skyline has been composed of numerous and varied skyscrapers, many of which are icons of 20th-century architecture:
The Flatiron Building, designed by Daniel Hudson Burnham and standing 285 ft (87 m) high, was one of the tallest buildings in New York City upon its completion in 1902, made possible by its steel skeleton. It was one of the first buildings designed with a steel framework, and to achieve this height with other construction methods of that time would have been very difficult. (The Tower Building, designed by Bradford Gilbert and built in 1889, is considered by some to be New York City's first skyscraper, and may have been the first building in New York City to use a skeletal steel frame, while the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, which was built in 1884, is considered the world's first skyscraper due to its steel skeleton). Subsequent buildings such as the Singer Building and the Metropolitan Life Tower were higher still.
The Woolworth Building, a neo-Gothic "Cathedral of Commerce" overlooking City Hall, was designed by Cass Gilbert. At 792 feet (241 m), it became the world's tallest building upon its completion in 1913, an honor it retained until 1930, when it was overtaken by 40 Wall Street.
That same year, the Chrysler Building took the lead as the tallest building in the world, scraping the sky at 1,046 feet (319 m). Designed by William Van Alen, an Art Deco style masterpiece with an exterior crafted of brick, the Chrysler Building continues to be a favorite of New Yorkers to this day.
The Empire State Building, the first building to have more than 100 floors (it has 102), was completed the following year. It was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon in the contemporary Art Deco style. The tower takes its name from the nickname of New York State. Upon its completion in 1931 at 1,250 feet (381 m), it took the top spot as tallest building, and towered above all other buildings until 1972. The antenna mast added in 1951 brought pinnacle height to 1,472 feet (449 m), lowered in 1984 to 1,454 feet (443 m).
The World Trade Center officially reached full height in 1972, was completed in 1973, and consisted of two tall towers and several smaller buildings. For a short time, the first of the two towers was the world's tallest building. Upon completion, the towers stood for 28 years, until the September 11 attacks destroyed the buildings in 2001. Various governmental entities, financial firms, and law firms called the towers home.
The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) was completed in 1974, one year after the World Trade Center, and surpassed it as the world's tallest building. It was the first building to employ the "bundled tube" structural system, designed by Fazlur Khan. The building was not surpassed in height until the Petronas Towers were constructed in 1998, but remained the tallest in some categories until Burj Khalifa surpassed it in all categories in 2010. It is currently the second tallest building in the United States, after One World Trade Center, which was built to replace the destroyed towers.
Momentum in setting records passed from the United States to other nations with the opening of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1998. The record for the world's tallest building has remained in Asia since the opening of Taipei 101 in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2004. A number of architectural records, including those of the world's tallest building and tallest free-standing structure, moved to the Middle East with the opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
This geographical transition is accompanied by a change in approach to skyscraper design. For much of the twentieth century large buildings took the form of simple geometrical shapes. This reflected the "international style" or modernist philosophy shaped by Bauhaus architects early in the century. The last of these, the Willis Tower and World Trade Center towers in New York, erected in the 1970s, reflect the philosophy. Tastes shifted in the decade which followed, and new skyscrapers began to exhibit postmodernist influences. This approach to design avails itself of historical elements, often adapted and re-interpreted, in creating technologically modern structures. The Petronas Twin Towers recall Asian pagoda architecture and Islamic geometric principles. Taipei 101 likewise reflects the pagoda tradition as it incorporates ancient motifs such as the ruyi symbol. The Burj Khalifa draws inspiration from traditional Islamic art. Architects in recent years have sought to create structures that would not appear equally at home if set in any part of the world, but that reflect the culture thriving in the spot where they stand.
The following list measures height of the roof. The more common gauge is the "highest architectural detail"; such ranking would have included Petronas Towers, built in 1998.